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The Loop

"Throw the records out in a rivalry game" is sport's truest cliche

February 10, 2020
Duke v North Carolina

Streeter Lecka

We need fewer cliches in sports discourse, not more, and maybe I'm doing a disservice to the world by even making this argument, but after watching last night's Duke vs. UNC rivalry game at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, I can't help but tip my cap to a cliche I've been hearing since I was a kid: "When two rivals play, you can throw the records out the window." It's an annoying concept because it rejects the true quality of a team based on measurable data like wins and losses, and appeals to mystic qualities of universal balance based on years of enmity and shared history. On a logical planet, it shouldn't be true. By now, it should be in the trash heap of cliches that have been neutered by time and knowledge. Instead, it's stronger than ever.

First, about that game: North Carolina is having a very, very bad season...obscenely bad, by their standards. Injuries and luck have played their part, but beyond lonely superstar Cole Anthony, the team is just not that good. Head coach Roy Williams has routinely thrown them under the bus, making a bad situation worse. As for Duke? Duke is pretty good! They lack a transcendent talent like Zion Williamson, but they're scrappy, skilled, and led by the nation's best point guard. They're a top ten team, and miles better than Carolina.

Then they went to the Dean Dome Saturday night, and for 36 minutes they got their asses absolutely kicked by their rivals. It made no sense, but it was comprehensive—this was no fluke. Carolina played like a national championship contender, barely missed a shot, and thoroughly outclassed the superior team. Then, with four minutes left, up 13, everything collapsed, they missed a bunch of free shows, and it all led to this absurdly lucky/brilliant miracle from Tre Jones to force overtime:

Overtime came, and UNC was once again a dominant force, establishing a big lead and seemingly wrapping up the game...until it all collapsed again, leading to a moment that will share iconic status with Austin Rivers's game-winner from exactly eight years earlier. Here they are back-to-back:

So Duke escaped with a miracle win, but let's go back to that question: Why are rivalry games the great equalizer? Why doesn't it matter when one team is good, and the other is bad? How was UNC able to play like world-beaters after a truly abysmal season, and why did Duke have no answers for them until a late flurry?

It's one of those bizarre phenomenons that we know to be true without knowing why it's true. Sure, you can make some educated guesses...the energy of a rivalry game brings out the best in people, particularly the home team, even when the rest of the season disappoints. Last night, Carolina had one of its few shots to salvage a good memory from the 2019-20 slate, and they played like it was their last game on earth. The fans knew it too and gave them the kind of support you'd give if you were watching a national title game. And maybe that support is overwhelming for the "better" team, who perhaps expected a game in line with their respective skill levels.

But that just scratches the surface. Like it or not, there is something happening in the ether whenever we get a Duke vs. UNC matchup, and the intensity leads to outcomes that don't reflect relative talent in the slightest. Which is pretty cool, actually! To use another cliche or at least tiptoe in its direction, this is what makes sports great. It's why no Duke fan in his or her right mind expected Saturday night to be easy, and it's why rivalries are the oldest and best part of sports. A decade from now, if neither of these teams wins a title, we won't remember their records or their struggles. But we'll remember the Wendell Moore game forever, and it's all because a rivalry like this, in a lopsided year, can't help overflowing with paradoxical drama.

The "Fine, Have Your Moment" Man of the Week: Bobby Knight

I'm not completely heartless, so I'll admit I was moved by watching Bobby Knight's return to Assembly Hall in Indiana after decades of refusing to step foot on the court after his acrimonious break-up with IU. Have a look:

Now, let's also be clear about something: Bobby Knight was a vicious, petty man with a mean streak a mile long, and anyone who wants to know his true character should read John Feinstein's classic A Season on the Brink. He was a great coach, but he couldn't adjust with the times, and he reacted with vengeful bitterness to anyone who passed him by, including his protege Coach K, who he famously froze out when Duke beat Indiana in the 1992 Final Four. (Later, there was rapprochement when Coach K surpassed him in all-time wins and made the hall of fame.) He was verbally and sometimes physically abusive to his players at the best of times, and the worst of times his conduct was so egregious that he eventually got fired from Indiana and flamed out in his subsequent stops. Even in his return to Indiana, I genuinely can't tell whether he was actually about to fight Dick Vitale here:

So, yes, the man had his moment at Assembly Hall, and even knowing his character, it was hard not to tear up watching him return to the place where he had been such an institution for so long. But it's also imperative that we remember that character, and keep a true picture of Bobby Knight in our minds.

The Meaningless Rankings of the Year Award: College Basketball

To be clear, I have no problem with college basketball's ranking system, and I think it's usually an effective way to determine the best team. However, in the year 2020, things are so out-of-whack, and so confusing, that the rankings are utterly meaningless in the sense that they don't conform to reality. Baylor is the no. 1 team and had just one loss, but that loss is to a miserable Washington team, and their wins are against a miserable Big 12 conference (other than a quality road win against Kansas). Gonzaga is no. 2, and the Zags just got murdered by St. Mary's. Kanas is overrated at no. 3 and has lost to Duke, and at no. 4 San Diego State is 23-0 in a weak conference. It's not until you get to no. 5 and Louisville that you arrive at a team with actual best-in-the-country credentials, and while there's always ambiguity, this is the most upside-down year I've ever seen. "Wide open" doesn't begin to describe it in a season when I'm convinced that none of the top four teams have a prayer of winning a title.